- Stick Fly
- By Lydia R. Diamond
- Directed by Liesl Tommy
- Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Atop a stack of books in the summer home living room of the übersuccessful Levay family is The Audacity of Hope by Sen. Barak Obama (D. Ill.) The choice is significant: the Levays, like Sen. Obama, exemplify modern African-American accomplishment. Father Joseph (David Emerson Toney) is a neurosurgeon; elder son Flip (Avery Glymph) is a plastic surgeon, and younger son Kent (Maduka Steady) – his fiancée calls him “Spoon” – will soon have his first novel published. Racism is dead! Hurrah for us! Right?
Well, not exactly. America’s four-hundred-year slog through race relations has created a minefield strewn with glass, and no mere gesture – not even the election of an African-American President – will clear it.
In this smart, complex play, we learn these home truths less through the self-satisfied Levays than through their women: Spoon’s fiancé Taylor (Tijuana T. Ricks), Flip’s girlfriend Kimber (Anna Marie Nest) and Cheryl (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), daughter of the family’s maid. I use the term “their women” deliberately. The Levays seek to possess the women they love even as they profess to adore them, just as they possess the fine homes and professional accomplishments they love.
Stick Fly is full of issues: abandonment (Taylor’s father was a brilliant sociologist who divorced her mother and never saw much of either of them again), race (Taylor resents the efforts of Kimber, a white woman, to formulate a theory of racism in America), gender (Flip recalls a relationship he cut off because his partner was too eager to have sex with him), fidelity (Flip is unwilling to commit to Kimber, though they clearly love each other), class (Taylor is uncomfortable treating Cheryl as the hired help, instead of a member of the family – an issue which grows in importance as the play moves along) and the war between fathers and sons (Kent cannot win the respect of his father for his work as a novelist, in part because he has begun and quit other careers before). All of this is thrashed out with such razor-sharp dialogue, delivered (in large part) with such vigorous authenticity, that you almost forget that there is not much of an overarching narrative question driving the story forward, and that the conflict is intellectual and academic rather than emotional and visceral.
These issues are never resolved, of course. If Chicago playwright Lydia R. Diamond could resolve them she would be running for President rather than Obama, and she would have no opponent. It is sufficient that she makes them real and fierce, rather than clichéd and educational. Thus, for example, Taylor flays Kimber, who works to defuse racial conflict in the inner city, for her liberal condescension and self-satisfied nobility. But Kimber, instead of being cowered and chastised by Taylor’s verbal napalm, returns it in kind, blasting Taylor for her ego and victimhood. And when his children find Joseph guilty of a dreadful misdeed many years ago, the patriarch, who is cowered and chastised, recalls a context that makes you understand that we are dealing with real people, not cartoon good and bad guys.
In processing complex social issues through complex and sophisticated characterization, Diamond recalls Eugene O’Neill, and it is useful to compare this production to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, currently running at Quotidian. Like the local production, Stick Fly relies on subtle characterization rendered by superb acting (except for Steady, who I simply could not believe as the young writer). But the CATF production could learn something about crisp pacing from the Quotidian show. In particular, Stick Fly’s interminable scene changes, in which one or more characters silently emote while cool music plays on at considerable length, serves only to remind us how long we’ve been sitting in the theater, listening to talky dialogue explore complicated issues.
It is much more fun to listen to the actors make the words fly – and especially to watch David Emerson Toney as Dr. Joseph Levay. Wise, loutish, charismatic, intimidating, full of fierce rage and sly caution and high good humor, Joe Levay is a towering cauldron of a man. There are few actors who could play him, even in Washington. Emerson is one of them, and he is a pleasure to watch. Among the rest of the fine cast, I particularly enjoyed Abbott-Pratt, whose character is forced to carry the dramatic weight of the play’s conclusion, and who does so on her character’s behalf with convincing naturalness.
In O’Neill’s time, America had not yet made itself into a just land for its Irish immigrants, but we had moved through the first stage of brutal discrimination and were now confronting more complex questions of Irish identity and assimilation. If Diamond is to be believed – and she makes a convincing case – we are finally facing the questions we need to face in order to make this a just land for African Americans. It sounds audacious, but we might have hope.
- Running time: Two hours thirty minutes
- Tickets & Schedule: Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Where: Shepherds University . Studio Theater. Shepherdstown, WV